The fastest growing area of Christian music today is in the contemporary arena. Many churches are shifting to a blended or contemporary style of music. Choirs have given way to praise teams, while organs have given way to keyboards. Some worry that our church music is being lost. We long to pass on our heritage. Yet, just as children may not inherit our faith, neither can new generations necessarily inherit our worship.
Many preachers and churches deal regularly with complaints about worship being dull or boring, or the number one complaint, “I’m not being fed.” More emphasis seems to be on the quality of the worship experience. Realizing that this is the priority for many twenty-first-century U.S. churchgoers, one leading church has changed the name of their worship services to “experiences.” They tell us that the word worship implies dull and boring.
Another major complaint from long-time churchgoers is that worship seems more like entertainment. The changes seem to some more like a concert than a service of worship. Even some among the younger generations agree.
The Samaritan woman at the well tried to draw Jesus into the question of worship styles. “You believe that traditional worship is best done in the temple and that only the Hebrew priests can properly lead worship, but our Samaritan leaders have another view.” What led to this division between Samaritans and Jews was the long period of exile in Babylon. Jews who had been taken into captivity tried to remain racially and religiously pure, not allowing any intermarriage. The Jews who were left behind intermarried and developed new religious practices as a part of their survival. When those in captivity finally returned under Nehemiah and Ezra, those who had remained behind were declared “unclean” and their worship on Mount Gerizim was termed sacrilegious. The debate had continued for centuries as Jews and Samaritans remained enemies.
Jesus cut to the heart of the woman’s need. Worship does not require either temple or sacred mountain; true worship focuses upon God and not upon the worshiper. What does that say about our contemporary-versus-traditional debates? Jesus’ words call us to question our worship. Why does God call us to worship? Why do we sing? Leaf through most hymnals and notice few hymns written in the manner of the psalms. The language of the psalms points attention toward God. Our hymns, contemporary and traditional, often point toward us: our calling, our experience, the testimony of the church.
John Wesley provided directions for congregational singing, which read, in part: “sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself. . . . [A]ttend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.”
Our favorite church songs assist our worship. Some bring praise, and others call to pray. Some hymns declare God’s faithfulness, while others call us to serve. Some relay the gospel, and others tell the story of the church. We need hymns that call us to know God, not merely to know about God. When the Samaritan woman tries to divert conversation away from herself by saying that one day the Messiah will come, Jesus simply says, “I Am—the one who speaks with you.”
In his revelation, Jesus portrays a picture of heavenly choirs. Throughout the pages, he paints a graphic scene of the heavenly congregation continually in relationship with God, engaging in worship, and bringing praise to the Lamb of God. These worshipers and choristers are in the presence of the Messiah; they need hope no more, for the Messiah has come. Toward the end of Revelation, God completes the redemption of all creation, and God and humanity dwell together. John writes that a loud voice from the throne shouts, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (vv. 3- 4). Finally, there are no barriers to our worship, no distractions, no more confusing our need with worship. Finally, all worshipers give full attention to God, our creator. Can you imagine what that will be like?
“I Can Only Imagine” by the award-winning Christian singers Mercy Me, wonders aloud about John’s picture of Revelation. What will life be when our complete focus is on the one who is present among us? Written in first person, this is a song sung as a prayer to God. “Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel? . . . I can only imagine!”
What will you do? Perhaps the question Jesus poses for us today is, what are you doing? If the Christ, our Messiah, has come, if Christ, our Lord, is present today, then how is our worship? Someone says, “But Lord, the music was just not of the quality that you deserve?”
Christ replies, “But my friends in the ghetto sing passionately without any accompaniment.” Another complains, “I just couldn’t worship today, Lord, because I just wasn’t fed.” Christ answers, “By whom are you expecting to be fed? I was with you. Did I not satisfy you?”
Can you imagine what it might be like when we finally know that Christ is present?